I’m sure there’s no need to waste time persuading you that keyword research is one of the highest return SEO activities that is essential for your marketing success.
There’s also no shortage of great articles that give you very detailed instructions as to executing a professional keyword research, ranking high for thousands of targeted search terms and vastly improving your traffic from Google.
But here’s an interesting observation: each of these guides will give you a somewhat different set of instructions.
Not that any of them is advising you wrong, it’s just there’s no universal approach to executing keyword research.
It will vary based on:
- Your website (authority, number of pages, quality of content, etc);
- Your goals and objectives (branding, exposure, traffic, leads, sales);
- Your budget, resources and deadlines;
- Your industry and competitive landscape.
This is why you might find it hard to relate to a random step-by-step guide that you stumble upon.
So I’m going to take a different route and give you a keyword research framework that can be easily adjusted to whatever your goals and resources are
CHAPTER 1:Keyword Research Basics
In this chapter I’ll cover the fundamentals of keyword research.
First, you’ll learn exactly what keyword research is
I’ll also show you how keyword research helped grow my site’s search engine traffic to 170k+ unique visitors per month.
What is Keyword Research?
Keyword research is the process of discovering words and phrases that people use in search engines with the ultimate goal of optimizing content around those terms and ranking for those terms in search engines.
Why is Keyword Research Important for SEO?
Keyword research impacts every other SEO task that you perform, including finding content topics, on-page SEO, and outreach and promotion.
That’s why keyword research is usually the first step of any SEO campaign.
Put another way:
Keywords are like a compass for your SEO campaigns: they tell you where to go and whether or not you’re making progress.
As a bonus, researching keywords help you figure out the thoughts, fears, and desires of your target market. That’s because keyword research gives you insight into what customers are searching for… and the exact words and phrases that they use.
In other words: keyword research is market research for the 21st century.
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How Keyword Research Helped My Site’s Traffic Grow
Today, my site generates 302,749 visitors every month:
And 200,706 of those visitors (66.29%) come from Google:
Obviously, there are a lot of factors that went into my site’s success with SEO, including content, on-site optimization, link building and technical SEO.
But the #1 factor that contributed to my site’s traffic growth was keyword research.
A few months ago I used the strategies from this guide to uncover an awesome, low-competition keyword: mobile SEO.
Because that keyword wasn’t super competitive, my site quickly hit the #1 spot in Google:
And thanks to that #1 ranking, that single page brings in hundreds of visitors from Google every month:
With that, it’s time for chapter 2.
CHAPTER 2:How to Find Keyword Ideas
Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of keyword research.
Specifically, it’s time to generate a list of keywords.
In this chapter I’m going to show you proven strategies that you can use to come up with LOTS of keyword ideas.
Let’s dive right in.
Brainstorm a List of Topics
Here’s where you come up with topics that your target customer is interested in.
For example, let’s say that you run a digital marketing agency.
Well, you’d want to ask yourself: ”What topics do people search for that are related to my business?”
Some topics that come to mind would be things like:
- Social media
- Email marketing
- Website traffic
- Content marketing
Note: These topics aren’t keywords. They’re broad topics that you’ll later use to drill down to specific keywords.
Which is exactly what you’re going to learn how to do right now…
Wikipedia Table of Contents
Wikipedia is an overlooked keyword research goldmine.
Where else can you find articles curated by thousands of industry experts… all organized into neat little categories?
Here’s how to use Wikipedia to find keyword ideas.
First, head over to Wikipedia and type in a broad keyword:
That will take you to the Wikipedia entry for that broad topic.
Then, look for the “contents” section of the page. This section lists out the subtopics covered on that page.
And some of the subtopics listed here are awesome keywords that would be tough to find any other way:
You can also click on some of the internal links on the page to check out the Table of Contents of other, closely related entries.
For example, on the coffee entry we have a link to “Coffee Preparation”:
When you click on that link, you’ll notice that the table of contents for the Coffee Preparation page has even more keywords that you can add to your list:
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Searches Related To
Another cool way to find keywords is to check out the “Searches Related to” section at the bottom of Google’s search results.
For example, let’s say one of your topics was “content marketing”.
Well, you’d want to search for that keyword in Google.
And scroll to the bottom of the page. You’ll find a list of 8 keywords that are closely related to your search term.
Just like with Google Suggest, these are keyword ideas that come straight from Google. So you don’t need to guess whether or not they’re popular. Google is literally telling you: “Tons of people search for these keywords.”
Pro Tip: Click on one of the “Searches Related To” keywords.
Then, scroll to the bottom of THOSE results. This will give you a new list of related keywords. Rinse and repeat.
Find Keywords on Reddit
Chances are your target audience hangs out on Reddit.
Which means you can usually find lots of keyword ideas on this platform.
Let’s say that you run a site that sells organic dog food.
You’d head over to Reddit. Then search for a broad topic that your target audience is interested in… and something that’s related to what you sell.
Then, choose a subreddit where your audience probably hangs out:
Finally, keep an eye out for threads that have lots of comments, like this:
In this case you’d add “dog food allergies” to your keyword ideas list.
Pro Tip: “Keyworddit” is a free SEO tool that scans Reddit for words and phrases that people use… and sorts those phrases by monthly search volume.
Use Google and YouTube Suggest
Now that you have a list of topics, type each one of them into Google.
And see what terms that Google Suggests to you.
These are great keywords to add to your list.
Because if Google suggests a keyword, you KNOW that lots of people are searching for it.
But you don’t need to stop with Google Suggest.
You can also find keyword suggestions with YouTube Suggest:
Find Popular Topics Using Forums
Forums are like having live focus groups at your fingertips 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The easiest way to find forums where your target audience hangs out is to use these search strings in Google:
“keyword” + “forum”
“keyword” + “forums”
“keyword” + “board”
Once you find a forum, note how the forum is divided up into sections: Each of these sections are potential keywords that you can add to your list.
To dig deeper, check out some of the threads on the forum to find other specific topics that your target audience struggles with:
Pretty cool, right?
CHAPTER 3:Keyword Research Tools
This chapter is all about tools.
Can you find keywords without a tool?
But a tool makes the entire process A LOT easier.
With that, here are the keyword research tools that I personally use and recommend.
The Google Keyword Planner
Google’s Keyword Planner is THE most reliable source of keyword information online.
That’s because, unlike most other tools, the data you get from the Keyword Planner come straight from Google.
(So you know they’re accurate)
The big downside of the GKP is that it’s designed to help people with their Google ad campaigns… not with SEO.
That said, you can still use the GKP to get lists of keyword ideas…
…and find search queries that get lots of searches.
This new tool is like Google Trends… but better.
Exploding Topics scrapes the web for terms that are surging in popularity. And it bubbles those terms up for you.
You can even sort the list of topics by category.
Keywords Everywhere might be my favorite keyword research tool.
Because it shows you keyword ideas from different places around the web (including YouTube, Bing and Google Analytics).
All you need to do is install the Chrome extension. And the next time you visit one of the sites that Keywords Everywhere integrates with, you’ll see a list of keyword ideas… and data on each keyword.
Ubersuggest was the first Google suggest scraper that I used. And last year the tool got a massive upgrade and overhaul.
Ubersuggest still generates keyword ideas from Google’s search suggestions. But it also gives you data on each keyword (like search volume, CPC, keyword difficulty and more).
If you want to invest in a paid keyword tool, I HIGHLY recommend SEMrush.
That’s because SEMrush is a HUGE time saver.
Instead of popping random keywords into a tool, SEMrush shows you the exact keywords that a site already ranks for.
So if you have a site that you’re competing against in Google, just pop it into SEMrush.
And steal all of their keywords.
But not as many people know that Ahrefs also has a REALLY good keyword tool.
What’s nice about Ahrefs “Keyword Explorer” is that you get a ton of helpful data on each keyword.
Which can help you decide whether or not it’s a keyword that’s worth going after.
My one gripe with Keyword Explorer is that it’s not great at coming up with new keyword ideas. It usually generates keywords that are just simple variations of the keyword I typed in.
When it comes to drilling down to a single term, you can’t do much better than the features found in Ahrefs Keyword Explorer.
CHAPTER 4:Keyword Difficulty
How do you know if a keyword is too competitive to rank for?
It’s a good question to ask.
Because if you choose a keyword that’s super competitive, you might have trouble getting past Google’s third page.
But if you can find a keyword without a ton of competition, you have a good chance of cracking the top 3.
With that, here’s how to figure out a keyword’s SEO difficulty.
Long Tails Are (Usually) Less Competitive
If your site is brand new.
Or if you want to focus 100% on keywords that aren’t competitive.
Then you DEFINITELY want to target long tail keywords.
Most people in SEO (myself included) divide keywords into three main categories: head, body and the long tail.
Here’s a breakdown of each keyword type:
These are usually single-word keywords with lots of search volume…and competition. Examples of head terms are keywords like “insurance” or “vitamins”. Because searcher intent is all over the place (someone searching for “insurance” might be looking for a car insurance quote, a list of life insurance companies or a definition of the word), Head Terms usually don’t convert very well.
Body keywords are 2-3 word phrases that get decent search volume (at least 2,000 searches per month), but are more specific than Head Keywords. Keywords like “life insurance” or “order vitamins online” are examples of Body Keywords. These almost always have less competition than Head Terms.
Long Tail Keywords
Long tail keywords are long, 4+ word phrases that are usually very specific. Phrases like “affordable life insurance for senior citizens” and “order vitamin D capsules online” are examples of long tail keywords. These terms don’t get a lot of search volume individually (usually around 10-200 searches per month). But when you add them together, long tails make up the majority of searches online. And because they don’t get searches for that much, long tail terms usually aren’t very competitive.
There’s no “best” keyword category to focus on. All 3 have their pros and cons.
But when it comes to competition, long tails are usually the least competitive of the bunch.
Authority of Sites on Google’s First Page
Here’s a quick way to evaluate a keyword’s competition level.
First, search for your keyword in Google.
Then, look at the sites ranking on the first page.
(Not individual pages)
If the first page is made up of uber authority sites (like Wikipedia), then you might want to cross that keyword off from your list:
But if you see a handful of smaller blogs on page 1, that’s a sign that you have a shot to hit the first page too.
Keyword Difficulty Inside of Keyword Tools
The vast majority of keyword research tools have some sort of keyword competition feature, including SEMrush:
And Moz Pro:
We recently tested a bunch of them. And we found that they all size up keyword difficulty based on a combination of page authority and domain authority. YET they all tend to come up with completely different keyword difficulty scores.
Bottom Line? If your favorite keyword tool includes a keyword difficulty feature, go with that. It may not be perfect. But they do tend to give you a general idea of how competitive a keyword is to rank for.
Believe it or not, but there’s an entire tool dedicated to keyword difficulty: CanIRank.
What I like about this tool is that it doesn’t just spit out a keyword difficulty number. Instead, it evaluates a keyword’s competition level relative to your website.
For example, I recently popped the keyword “SEO” into CanIRank.
And the tool looked at Google’s first page competition compared to my site’s authority. And it gave me a “Ranking Probability” of 90%:
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CHAPTER 5:How to Choose a Keyword
Now that you have a list of keywords, how do you know which one to pick?
Unfortunately, there’s no tool out there that will tell you: “This is the best keyword on your list”.
Instead, you need to size up each keyword based on a handful of different factors. Then, pick the keyword that’s the best fit for your business.
As you might expect, that’s exactly what I’m going to show you how to do in this chapter.
This is pretty straightforward.
The more people search for a keyword, the more traffic you can get from it.
The question is:
What’s a “good” search volume?
Short answer: it depends.
The long answer:
Search volumes vary A LOT between different industries.
For example, a long tail keyword in the fitness niche (like: “best ab exercises”) gets 10K-100K searches per month:
But a long tail keyword in a B2B space like digital marketing (like: “best seo software”) only gets 100-1K monthly searches.
That’s why you want to figure out what a “high” and “low” search volume number is in your niche.
Then, choose keywords based on what’s “normal” for your industry.
It’s no secret that the number of Google searchers that click on an organic search result is way down.
And it’s no wonder why.
Featured Snippets make it so you don’t need to click on anything to get an answer:
Plus, Google now packs the search results with more ads than ever before:
The bottom line?
Search volume only gives you part of the story. To get a full estimate of how many clicks you’ll get from a first page Google ranking, you also need to estimate organic CTR.
Here are two simple ways to do it…
First, you can look at the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) for your keyword.
If you see a lot of stuff on the first page (like a Featured Snippet and multiple Google Ads), then you know that you’re not going to get a ton of clicks… even if you rank #1.
Second, you can use a tool.
Ahrefs and Moz pro both estimate organic CTR.
With all that said:
I wouldn’t avoid a keyword just because it has a low CTR. If lots of people search for that term, it might still be worth going after.
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If your site is new (or doesn’t have a ton of links yet), target low-competition terms at first.
Then, as your site grows in authority, you can start to target more competitive stuff.
When I first launched Backlinko, I targeted almost 100% long tail keywords (like: “how to get backlinks”).
And because I didn’t have a ton of sites to compete with, I was able to get some organic traffic rolling in within a few weeks. Which helped me achieve some early SEO success.
Today, my site has backlinks from over 20k different domains:
So I can target more competitive keywords (like: “YouTube SEO”).
CPC (cost per click) is a single metric that answers one important question:
Do people searching for this keyword actually spend money?
So yeah, search volume is nice and all.
But if that keyword has zero commercial intent, then there’s no point in targeting that term.
Plus, you can sometimes get a great ROI from a keyword that doesn’t get that many searches… if the CPC is high enough.
For example, one of my target keywords is “link building services”.
According to Ahrefs, this keyword gets 400 searches per month.
So if I ONLY looked at search volume, I’d say: “This is a horrible keyword”.
That’s why it’s super important to ALSO look at CPC.
The CPC on that keyword is $25.00.
Which means that people are spending $25 every time someone searching for that keyword clicks on an ad.
So even though the search volume for that term isn’t that high, the CPC more than makes up for it.
Based on CPC (and the fact that the keyword wasn’t super competitive) I decided to create content optimized around that term.
And that blog post now ranks in the top 3 for my target keyword.
Here’s where you look at how likely it is that someone searching for a keyword will become a customer.
Yup, CPC helps you figure this out. But it doesn’t tell the entire story.
For example, a few weeks ago I came across the keyword: “backlink checker”.
On the surface, this is a great keyword.
It gets a decent amount of searches:
And has a $4.01 CPC:
It’s also not that competitive.
So this keyword is a winner, right?
Well… not really.
Contrast that with a keyword like “YouTube SEO”.
This keyword’s CPC is only $2.22.
But considering that I sell a YouTube training course, this term is a 10/10 in terms of business fit.
Which is why I wrote a piece of content around that keyword:
Finally, you want to see if your keyword is growing fast… or dying slow.
And the best way to do that? Google Trends.
For example, last year I was considering the keyword: “voice search SEO”.
But I decided to pop that keyword into Google Trends before pulling the trigger.
As you can see, interest in that keyword is growing fast.
Which is why I optimized this page around that term.
Even though that piece of content only brings in about 1k monthly search engine visitors per month today…
…the trend tells me that traffic to this post should increase over time.
CHAPTER 6:Advanced Tips and Strategies
Now that you’ve mastered the basics of keyword research, it’s time to cover some cool advanced stuff.
Specifically, I’m going to reveal a bunch of tactical keyword research tips that you can implement right away.
So without further ado, let’s dive right into the tips.
Let’s say that you found the PERFECT keyword.
And you rank in the top 3 for that term.
You’re pretty much done, right?
Actually… not really.
As it turns out, you can get even MORE traction from that keyword with Barnacle SEO.
Barnacle SEO is the practice of using other sites’ authority to rank on the first page.
For example, one of my best keywords (in terms of conversions) is: YouTube SEO.
Sure, a #1 ranking is great. But it’s still only one spot in the SERPs.
That’s why I created a YouTube video optimized for that keyword…
…a video that also ranks on Google’s first page.
Bottom line? If you find an amazing keyword, you want to take up as much first page real estate as you can. First, create content on that topic on your own site. Then, publish keyword-optimized content on authority sites, like YouTube, LinkedIn, Medium and more.
GSC Keyword Research
The Google Search Console is a goldmine of keyword ideas.
Here’s how it works:
First, login to your GSC account and head over to the “Performance Report”.
This report shows you the terms that bring in the most clicks from Google search.
Then, sort the list by “Impressions”.
This shows you keywords that get lots of impressions… but not necessarily clicks.
Finally, create a piece of content optimized around that same keyword.
Why is this a powerful strategy?
These are keywords that you KNOW people are searching for. You also know that Google sees your site as a good fit in the search results.
You just need to publish content that’s super focused on that specific keyword (or optimize a piece of existing content around that keyword) and you’re set.
Optimize Content around Synonyms and Related Keywords
Yes, you want to optimize your page around your main keyword.
But don’t stop there.
You can get even more search engine traffic to your page by optimizing it around synonyms and closely related terms.
I’ll show you how this works with a real life example.
Earlier this year I published this post on my blog.
As you can probably guess, my target keyword for that page is: “increase website traffic”.
But I also made sure to sprinkle in variations of that keyword, like: “get more traffic”.
In the end, I was able to rank in the top 3 for my main keyword…
…and lots of keyword variations.
Ahrefs Content Gap
Content Gap has quickly become one of my favorite features in Ahrefs.
Here’s how it works:
Just like with SEMRush, you can use Ahrefs to see the exact keywords another site ranks for.
And with Ahrefs Content Gap, you can take this type of competitor analysis to the next level.
Head over to Ahrefs content gap. And put in 2-3 competing sites.
This will show you keywords that at least 2 of your competitors rank for… but you don’t.
And because multiple competitors rank for these terms, you know that you also have a good chance of cracking the top 10.
Analyze Keywords Based on Searcher Intent
In other words, ask yourself:
What does someone searching for this keyword want to see?
Are they looking to buy? For information? Or are they looking for a specific page (like a login page)?
I recently created a post that ranks #2 for the keyword “BuzzStream”.
Even though that keyword gets around 2k searches/month, that post only brings in 194 monthly visitors.
Well, as it turns out, “BuzzStream” is a navigational keyword.
Which means that most people that search for that keyword are looking for the website… not information about BuzzStream.
So yeah, that keyword looked great at first glance. But because it’s a navigational keyword, VERY few people click on anything but the first result. Which is why that post gets so little traffic.
That’s why I recommend looking at the Search Intent of a keyword.
If Search Intent is “Navigational”, then you may want to avoid that term… even if it has great CPC and monthly search volume numbers.
(As you just saw, this is a lesson I had to learn the hard way)
But if Searcher Intent is “Informational”, then a piece of content optimized around that term could do GREAT.
Find “Shoulder Keywords”
Most people ONLY optimize their site around keywords that are very closely related to what they sell.
And it’s a BIG mistake for two main reasons:
1. Product keywords are usually super competitive.
2. There are thousands of keywords that your potential customer searches for when they’re not searching for that you sell.
And if you can get in front of your customer with an awesome piece of content, they’re SUPER likely to buy from you down the road.
For example, like I mentioned earlier, I run an SEO training company.
But I don’t optimize every page on my site around commercial terms.
(Like “SEO training” and “SEO courses”).
Instead, I rank for keywords that my customers search for when they’re not looking for SEO training.
(Keywords like: “link building”, “on-page SEO” and “SEO Tools”).
I call these keywords “Shoulder Keywords”.
These keywords aren’t directly related to what you sell. But they’re keywords that your customers search for. Which makes them worth going after.
How about another example?
Let’s say you run an Ecommerce site that sells basketball hoops.
Obviously, you’d want to optimize some of your pages around terms like “buy basketball hoops online”.
But don’t stop there.
After all, someone interested in buying a basketball hoop may also search for:
- How to shoot a better free throw
- Slam dunk highlights
- How to get recruited by college scouts
- Nutrition for basketball players
- How to improve a vertical jump
So you’d want to create content around these “Shoulder Keywords” too